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Why Won’t the Speakeasy Die?

The speakeasy aesthetic was once so ubiquitous it became a punchline. But long since the Edison bulbs burnt out, the hidden bar continues to flourish.

breakroom 86 la

To enjoy a drink at Break Room 86, a bar in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, you must enter through a loading dock off Ardmore Avenue, walk down a back-of-the-house hallway past hotel kitchens and ice machines and locate a door hidden behind a vending machine. Once inside, you’re greeted by an audiovisual fever dream of John Hughes-era nostalgia: High school lockers and cassette tapes line the walls; vintage Atari consoles await your grip; and the phone booth from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is ready to take your call. Oh, and the back bar hydraulically descends to reveal a stage, where you might watch a live karaoke band or a Brat Pack-themed musical.

Break Room 86 is just one of some 15 bars created and operated by the twin brothers Mark and Jonnie Houston of Houston Hospitality. Most of the Houstons’ nightlife properties follow a formula that has proven irresistible. They begin with a hidden entrance, which leads to a transportive, hyper-designed environment, each with their own unique theme: post-Castro Havana (La Descarga), Parisian boudoir (Pour Vous), 1970s house party (Good Times at Davey Wayne’s), and so on. While only one of their bars, Dirty Laundry, models itself after a 1920s speakeasy, the term “speakeasy” is often applied to all of their establishments.

Although bar design has clearly evolved in the past two decades from the Prohibition-themed spaces of the aughts (Edison bulbs, faux bookshelves, “secret” passwords), the term “speakeasy” remains shorthand for any bar with an inconspicuous entrance. And those entrances have only become more elusive. Today we have bars behind barbershops (Blind Barber in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles), porn shops (Adults Only, Los Angeles), bookstores (Williams & Graham, Denver), coffee shops (Jettison, Dallas) and Irish pubs (Eleven Twenty-Two, Paso Robles). The question is why, even after the Edison bulbs have long burnt out, does this element of speakeasy culture—the unmarked entrance—continue to thrive? Why, some 80-plus years since the repeal of Prohibition, are we still pretending the feds might bust down the door?

The answer—at least part of it—dates back 20 years ago to a harmless misinterpretation of the term “speakeasy.”

If the modern cocktail movement has a cosmic egg, it’s Milk & Honey. When Sasha Petraske opened the doors of his small cocktail bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in early 2000, it was a dramatic statement. Its door was devoid of signage, and reservations could be made only by a frequently changing, unpublished phone number. Inside, bartenders made classic cocktails with hand-carved ice and a monastic attention to detail that few had encountered before.

When the media started reporting on Milk & Honey, it was usually labeled a “speakeasy,” assuming that the unmarked door, elusive reservation policy, jazzy soundtrack and dapper proprietor—who dressed as if he’d just stepped off the set of The Untouchables—was a throwback to the illicit drinking of the 1920s and 1930s.

“Looking back on it now, some 20 years later, I think we got the brief wrong,” says Jim Meehan, whose Manhattan bar, PDT, is as famous for its hidden entrance (a phone booth inside of an East Village hot dog stand) as it is for its ambitious cocktail program. “Milk & Honey’s style and substance was a byproduct of [Sasha’s] idiosyncratic style and wasn’t an explicit throwback to Prohibition era. It was really Angel’s Share that was his main inspiration,” he says, referring to the Ginza-style bar inside of an East Village izakaya that opened in 1993. “A lot of these neo-American speakeasies were actually neo-Tokyo bars . . . They just didn’t know it.”

Petraske himself concurred. “The speakeasy idea was an accident,” he’s quoted saying in his posthumous book, Regarding Cocktails.

Regardless, Milk & Honey’s impact on cocktail culture was immediate and resounding. Within a few years, New York nightlife was alit with filament bulbs, outfitted with sleeve garters and slicked with mustache wax. Windowless rooms were hidden behind unmarked entrances; century-old cocktail books were dusted off and pre-Prohibition recipes were reborn; esoteric spirits and ingredients were painstakingly sourced or developed anew. (It didn’t hurt that social media, ultimate documenter of novelty, took off at that same moment.) Ironically, these trademarks of mid-aughts cocktail culture were not based on the reality of Prohibition-era speakeasies.

“Most of these bars bear no relation to what speakeasies actually were,” says Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. “They’re the movie version of speakeasies . . . based on nostalgia for something that didn’t exist. There were no passwords or peepholes by 1923 or 1924. Most speakeasies were very much out in the open.”

To sum up: Our current nationwide speakeasy craze can be traced back to a proprietor with a Prohibition-era wardrobe whose establishment was actually a nod to an American bar that payed homage to Japan’s nondescript Ginza hideouts, which themselves were inspired by America’s classic cocktail culture. And to top it all off, we got most of the Prohibition-era design elements wrong. Lol?

Despite the historical mischaracterization of Prohibition-era bars, the nondescript (or completely hidden) entrances provided operators a quick way to make a statement and to “control the room” when bartenders had to slow their pace to make more complex drinks. “A ‘speakeasy’ entrance can help you hone your customer base,” says Dave Kaplan, a partner in Proprietors LLC, which operates Death & Co. and other bars. “In the early days of this cocktail culture, this was very useful. There was so much more education necessary to the experience, so we removed the windows from Death & Co. to make it more unassuming, to draw in curious drinkers and to give them a sense of escapism.”

As the cocktail consumer base became more educated, operators created more dramatic environments to distinguish themselves from other Prohibition-inspired establishments. When Toby Maloney opened Chicago’s Violet Hour in 2007, guests entered through an unmarked door and walked down a drywall-lined corridor before pushing through a curtain into a Victorian ballroom. “We wanted to give people a suspension of disbelief, to play with their expectations,” Maloney says. “A hidden entrance is the easiest aspect of a craft cocktail bar to co-opt. Anybody can make a doorway that’s hard to find. It’s controlling the experience when you get inside that’s fucking hard.”

More recently, bars have begun tapping into the nostalgia for another era of clandestine drinking: our youth. In Minneapolis, The Back Bar, hidden behind the popular restaurant Young Joni, was designed to evoke a rustic cabin, though many patrons are transported back to the basements of adolescence. Menus are fashioned to look like vintage high school yearbooks, community newspapers and other wistful curiosities. “We want to make you feel like a kid, like you’re about to sneak some beers,” says bar manager Adam Gorski.

One might interpret the persistence of the speakeasy as a reflection of America’s complicated relationship with drinking (and other vices), which dates back to the days of the Puritans. Or maybe it’s our enduring sense of elitism, another notion that can be traced back to the Pilgrims. The writer Jonah Berger supports the latter theory his 2013 book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which mentions PDT and the social currency of knowing about hidden bars. Knowing a secret has cachet.

“It makes you look smart, special and cooler than others,” he writes. “Like you’re ahead of the curve.”

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Nick Fauchald is a Twin Cities-based author. His most recent book, Cocktail Codex, was named the 2019 James Beard "Book of the Year."